Internet Brain

“When we go online,

we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading,

man working on the smartphone in sunny day

hurried and distracted thinking,

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and superficial learning.”

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Internet culture and the Internet itself are now so ubiquitous that you may not even think of life as being separated into online and offline. If you have a smartphone (and the odds are good that you do), you probably keep it in a pocket or bag–somewhere very close to your body–throughout the day. And overnight, too, lots of us will keep it on a bedside table or right on the mattress or pillow we’re sleeping on.

Even if you’re not actively using your phone, you could receive a text, social media notification, or some other message at any time because it is always connected. It could, of course, lose the signal. But there’s a good chance you’ll see that as a frustration rather than a benefit. I try to be judicious about my phone usage, but I found myself annoyed on a recent camping trip when I couldn’t post to Instagram without any signal at the campsite.

Even if you don’t have a phone or don’t have it on you, you’re likely surrounded by an expanding array of networked things. Everything from fridges to things that we wear to shops and theme parks are becoming more connected in some form or another. Whether cyberspace is taking over the real world, or the real world is diving into cyberspace, we are now thoroughly immersed.

As someone who can remember life pre-Internet (I’m old…ish), it’s crazy to think how quickly and thoroughly things have changed. How natural it feels now to be connected all the time. Most of us could not function without it–whether for the demands and obligations of work or school, or for the more pleasurable things like entertainment, relationships, and staying in the know so you’re not missing out. Constant connectivity, and our reliance on it, has become a way of life.

But because of the dramatic and comprehensive saturation, we should take time to examine the kinds of things it might be doing to us that we’re not immediately aware of. Specifically, how it shapes the way we think, feel, and act. Our brains are the epicenter of concentration, emotion, intelligence, and imagination. We better make sure that anything influencing our brain function–Internet or otherwise–isn’t hampering our ability to be ourselves and be fully human. A person is not just a brain but a fully embodied creature embedded in society. Any changes to our brain will shape how we act with other people and move and breathe in the world.

In some ways, heavy use and reliance on the Internet have boosted our mental and relational powers. Rapid communication and new ways of speaking (emoji, GIFs, memes, and short videos), the way we share stories and experiences, quickly finding information, surrounding ourselves with diverse points of view, and certain improvements in abstract thinking and visual-spatial skills.

But the Internet doesn’t just boost and supplement what we can already do. It also shapes us in its image. Our brains have what’s called neuroplasticity–they adapt and rewire themselves based on what we subject them to. In Internet immersion, our brains start to resemble the things that typify the web.

A preference for the short and sweet–the informal and immediate–because that’s how tweets, texts, and other notifications are packaged. An attention span that defaults to skimming the surface because it’s acclimated to scrolling and swiping with few pauses. Extreme multitasking and information overload that mirrors the bustle of several apps, windows, and tabs all in play at the same time. A reliance on servers for memory rather than our own mind because it’s easier to offshore it. And a reliance on links and searches in a browser to move between ideas rather than an internalized understanding of what’s true and how it’s interrelated with other things.

Kind of a big deal. Maybe you notice these things about yourself, maybe not. But if you’re using your phone or some other kind of device for hours a day, this is the kind of shaping and reshaping that’s happening. For all the perks connectivity brings, we’re at the same time being rewired in some concerning ways.  “The net seizes our attention only to scatter it.” We are losing a centered, integrated sense of calm, attention, and deep thinking.

So what do we do? Few of us can disconnect completely. But you should disconnect when you can. You’ll crave connectivity–at a visceral level–so this isn’t easy. Once it’s conditioned, your brain is waiting for the sweet neurochemical hit of a notification and the habitual frenzy of swiping through apps. But carving out some time to not be connected or near a device can help you get back to a better baseline. Maybe try things like no Facebook days or setting a timer for how long you’ll allow yourself to wander through messages and pages. Keep your phone in another room when you go to bed. Maybe that sounds lame or laughable. I get it. You’ll have to figure out what works for you.

Spend some time doing activities that encourage focused attention and long, deep thought. Things like reading, writing, painting, cooking, listening to music (where you focus only on the music). They’ve been a part of the human experience for a long time because of the individual and cultural benefits they bring. They can be a strong counterbalance to the scattering effects of the Internet.

And get outside. Since connectivity is there at every turn, a change of scenery and the restorative benefits of nature can be especially vital. You may find yourself without any signal to connect to at all, and hopefully you’ll see it as a godsend rather than an annoyance like I did.

Internet brain is the standard model we’re all conforming to. The struggles and limitations that result from being constantly connected outweigh the perks. We can reduce the struggles and limitations by taking time to disconnect, diving into things that take the neuroplasticity of our brains in welcome directions, and immerse ourselves in nature. The more connected we become, the more the Internet will continue to shape us. But we can choose to make it one among many things shaping us, rather than the predominant force guiding how we live.

Staying on Top of Things

I got terrible grades when I first started college. I didn’t know how to study well. I often didn’t even make time to study. In fact, there were a lot of things that I didn’t find time for: doing laundry week-to-week, burning off the freshman 15 at the gym, picking up a part-time job, exploring the campus, and more. There’s a lot to do and stay on top of as a college student: the fun stuff and the necessary stuff. For most of my first year, I felt like I was spinning plates. And a lot of the plates were crashing to the ground.

Struggling so hard at managing my time and making sure things got done has forced me over the past several years to get much better at all of it. College, alone, turned into college plus a part-time job. Then, after graduation, a full-time job. Then it was full-time job plus grad school. And after that, a different, more demanding full-time job. Each step presented new challenges for staying on top of things. I never was perfect at it then nor am I now, but I feel like I’ve at least found some things that help me do much better overall.

What works for me may not work for you. But if you find yourself having a hard time remembering to get stuff done or figuring out how to organize your time, perhaps give some of these things a try.

Use your phone’s calendar and reminders. There are plenty of things to dislike about what smartphones and smartphone culture are doing to people. But for me, the Calendar and Reminder apps on my iPhone have become invaluable. There are too many things happening in a week–let alone a month or over the next year–to try to remember it all in my mind. I need the pensieve-like effect of transferring things from my brain into my phone.

Calendar is good for things that you know will occur at a specific time. When you open the app, you can see when you have available time to make additional plans, and when you’re booked up with events you already entered. Calendar allows you to set up alerts in a range from at the time of the event up to one week before. More than once, I’ve been busy doing something and then I get the notification that I need to be doing something else in 15 minutes. I set up alerts with enough time so that even if I completely space out about what’s coming up, I’ll still have enough time to get ready for it: changing clothes, commuting, etc.

Reminders is good for things that you need to do soon but aren’t sure exactly when you’re going to do them. It’s a digital replacement for handwritten to-do lists. Send the birthday card. Pick up flour. Deposit the checks. Call the fam. If you figure out a task should happen at a certain time, or when you’re near a particular place, you can add that too and you’ll get a notification later. I like Reminders because when you’ve done something on your list, you tap to make it disappear. There’s a satisfying feeling of accomplishment as you get things done and shorten the list.

Prioritize the essentials. Fill out your Calendar first with things like work shifts, meals, workouts, class times, projects and assignments to submit, time with significant others and friends, and the like. If you want to keep your job, you better know when you’re working and have alerts or alarms to make sure you’re there doing the work you need to be. If you want to stay healthy, you can’t just work out one random afternoon per month. Block out a few times per week in your Calendar, and hop to it when you get the notification. You may be tempted to swipe to clear it and go back to Netflix. If you want to get solid grades, you have to actually show up to most lectures and have some hours blocked out for studying. Library: 7-11pm, into the Calendar, as many days as you can fit it. Making time for your relationships goes without saying. But if your week is somewhat busy, you may have to plan ahead when you’re going to hang out with the people you care about.

Is it weird to make an event like Lunch: 12:30-1? Perhaps. But when people’s choices for eating are increasingly a quick smoothie or fast-casual takeout at whatever time of the day it can be squeezed in, having the regularity of sitting down to eat something decent around the same time, day-to-day, is important. Similar things are true of sleep.

Do chores and errands on regular days as much as you can. Groceries on Sunday. Laundry on Tuesday. Dishes every other night after dinner. Bills on the 2nd of every month. And the rest. Whatever days make the most sense for you.

Put them in your Calendar so you don’t forget and don’t put them off. You can set events to repeat for upcoming weeks if you’re going to be able to do those things on the same day again in the future. The more you do the essentials in the same week-to-week pattern, the easier it becomes to remember what’s coming up and get it done without stressing out.

Don’t beat yourself up if you get a little off schedule. If you’re going to be a little late to something, give them a heads-up and politely apologize. If you didn’t do something when you planned to and you can reschedule it–then reschedule it. The world will keep spinning if you do laundry on Thursday instead of Wednesday (though you might find yourself out of clean socks).

 

Set aside unstructured time. No one wants every minute of every day planned out. That’s a good way to go crazy. Things become too robotic.

Unstructured time is the cheat meal of staying on top of things. So pick an afternoon or a day where nothing that happens in it will be predetermined. Maybe you’ll grab coffee at a new spot. See if a friend is free. Read a book straight through. Drive off on a day trip. Who knows. Relax and let time unfold without obligation, deadlines, and expectations. Live for a little while as if all your work is done–even if it isn’t. You’ll come back to things fresh.

 

This Week in Upgrades: April 25

Hello, friend. Is it Monday again already? I hope the weekend treated you well.

I spent much of it cleaning the house from top to bottom, which–though probably not as fun as whatever you did–always feels good to complete. There will need to be some How To Adult cleaning posts in the future. I’ve learned a lot about what not to do.

In case you missed it, American currency is officially getting a major redesign. Pretty awesome that Harriet Tubman will be on the $20 (though not everyone was thrilled). It’s interesting to see how bills have evolved over time.

This week we found out that nearly half of Americans could not come up with $400 for a personal emergency if they had to. There’s some serious work to be done to help the middle class.

In more uplifting news, this week also gave us this video of 7 girls on appreciating culture rather than appropriating it.

Season 2 of Chef’s Table is almost here! Season 1 was so good.

Is “a thing” a thing?

We need to get serious about soda.

Is this why we procrastinate? Seems to explain why we’re bored, too. More reasons to do yoga.

Solar-powered planes aren’t practical for commercial flight yet, but they’re its green future.

Similarly, we whiffed on electric cars in the past, but hopefully we can get it right this time.

Have a great week!

Back to the Future

What a Piece of Work is Man

Mobile Phone Video
sabelskaya/Bigstock.com

As if Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t already cool enough, he’s now in the first performances for his version of Hamlet on stage. When tickets were made available last year, it became the fastest-selling production in British history. There’s only one problem: as soon as Cumberbatch begins to utter to be or not to be, a handful of people yank out their smartphones to try to record the scene. To what end?

To share as bragging proof that you were there? To turn into some kind of remixed or reworked media like a GIF? To rewatch over and over as a self-made souvenir?

Cumberbatch, for his part, is pleading for restraint. The Guardian posted a video of him on the street post-performance asking reporters to work their information-disseminating magic and get the word out. “…There’s nothing less supportive or enjoyable as an actor being onstage…it’s mortifying. And I can’t give you what I want to give you which is a live performance that you will remember, hopefully, in your minds and brains–whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent–rather than on your phones.”

What has happened to our sense of appreciation and capacity for enjoyment without capturing, posting, and hashtagging? It’s not enough to be at a thing: we have to record evidence of the thing, share the evidence of the thing, and replay the evidence of the thing again later–almost as if we were never even there and we need to prove to ourselves that we were.

Through the lens and microphone of our multifarious pocket technologies, we distance ourselves from what’s on the other side, and eliminate the possibility for the kind of memory our brains have developed to record in their own biological way: complex, emotional, sensory-rich; deep in story, context, and potential for recollection.

Have you ever been alerted by a smell that suddenly brought you back to a vivid moment earlier in life? Something that reminded you of that one day at your grandparents’ house, or that one concert with your high school friends, or that road trip with your lover? When the memory was formed, we were silent and still enough to knit together thousands of little strands of experience into something that we would remember in our minds and brains. Remember for a long time. Something that could transform who we are as a person. Something that would shape our future for the better by connecting us to the rich human experience we were in the midst of.

In a tech-saturated world, we have to put limitations on ourselves to maintain a healthy ability to appreciate what’s there right in front of us. To recognize skill and artistry. To observe beauty. To see truth embodied. To experience a transcendent moment. Perhaps even to feel a sense of healing and wholeness. If you think it’s ridiculous to get those things from standing still for an hour and letting the world wash over you, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. Let the great performers perform unimpeded and unfiltered–Benedict Cumberbatch, that musician you love, Mother Nature, and anyone else–and be transformed by moments and memories that will long outlive and exceed the likes you’d receive for cutting it into an oversimplified, shareable file.